The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

The discovery of skeletal remains under a public car park in Leicester a couple of years ago re-awakened interest in King Richard III, the man forever lodged in the public imagination as a murderous hunchback with withered arm.   Archaeological and forensic evidence of the skeleton revealed a spinal deformity but established unquestionably that both the withered arm and the hunchback were myths. What about that other accusation that Richard was a murderer? Did he actually have his two young nephews, the real heirs to the throne, killed in the Tower of London in order to clear the way for his own ascent to the throne?  Or is that an invention of Tudor-era historians keen to separate the new dynasty from the past?

Richard’s role and culpability has long been a subject of fascination but most of the debate took place in the narrow confines of historical academia. In 1951 however, the question became popularised with the publication of The Daughter of Time by the Scottish novelist Josephine Tey.

It’s rather an odd book; a mash-up of historical novel and detective story; in which a modern-day detective ‘investigates’ the crimes of which Richard has stood accused for centuries. All the investigation takes place from the confines of a hospital bed where Inspector Alan Grant (the central figure in Tey’s crime fiction series) lies flat on his back having broken his leg by falling through a trap door. He’s desperately bored. He knows every crack on the ceiling and has zero interest in the pile of books brought by well-meaning visitors. He perks up when his actress friend brings him a collection of portraits attached to historical controversies. After years in the police force Grant thinks he can tell a villain from an innocent just by their face so when his eye falls on a portrait of Richard III,  his curiosity is aroused. What he sees is not the face of a murderer but a man “used to great responsibility, and responsible in his authority. Someone too conscientious. A worrier; perhaps a perfectionist.” The more Grant reads about Richard, the more convinced he becomes that there is a mystery waiting to be uncovered. He quizzes hospital staff about their knowledge of the Princes in the Tower and reads whatever he can get his hands on – fortunately for him, one of his nurses has kept her old school history book.

All good detectives in fiction need a side kick to do the running around on their behalf, digging out the info from which the great brain will make his deductions. In The Daughter of Time the side kick role is allocated to Brent Carradine, a young American researcher at the British Museum. Together the pair read chronicles from Richard’s time and the Tudor era; delve into assessments by more contemporary historians and track down original documents. Grant dismisses the assessments of chroniclers like Thomas More (whose History of Richard III is the primary source for the conventional story of the murders) as “back-stair gossip and servants’ spying.” More after all was just five years old when Richard seized the throne so couldn’t possibly have written his account based on personal knowledge.

Nor does Grant have much faith in latter-day historians. “They see history like a peep show, with two-dimensional figures against a distant background” he tells his actress friend. Instead Grant relies on his ability to judge a man’s character by the cut of his jib and to spot the gaps in evidentiary documents – skills honed from his years at Scotland Yard. On the eve of Grant’s departure for home, he summarises the case for Richard’s defence and the case for seeing a wholly different culprit – his successor on the English throne, King Henry VII.

This is a novel that was immediately popular upon its publication. It took a subject seen by many as ‘dry’ and made it into a quest for justice and the truth.  It caused many readers to burrow in their attics for their dusty school history books and re-acquaint themselves with the fifteenth-century equivalent of Who’s Who. A radio program based on the book followed in 1952 and then a spate of  novels, plays, and biographies sympathetic to Richard throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

If Tey’s intent was to rehabilitate the reputation of a man best known as the villain of Shakespearian drama, she certainly succeeds in creating doubt about the veracity of that portrayal. But as a work of literature it has its faults. By necessity a lot of background information needs to be provided and explained so we get large chunks of narrative along these lines:

Do you know about Morton?

No

He was a lawyer turned churchman, and the greatest pluralist on record. He chose the Lancastrian side and stayed with it until it was made clear that Edward IV was home and dried. Then he made his peace with the York side and Edward made him Bishop of Ely. And vicar of God knows how many parishes besides. but after Richard’s accession he backed first the Woodvilles and then Henry Tudor and ended up with a cardinal’s hat….

Then we get multiple conversations between Grant and Carradine which go along the lines of

I’ll tell you something even odder. You know we thought that XYZ……… Well, it turns out that …….

What!

Yes you may well look startled.

Are you sure?

Quite sure.

Not exactly riveting dialogue is it?  I know a certain amount of exposition is required for the benefit of readers who are not familiar with the period or the key figures but Tey goes over-board on this. I didn’t feel I needed to have everything spelled out and it deadened what would otherwise be some fascinating insights into the machinations of the times. The shame is that it marred an otherwise fascinating book. My knowledge of the period isn’t deep enough to judge for myself whether it’s Henry we should consider to be the instigator of what happened more than 500 years ago. But Tey does make a persuasive case for re-evaluating Richard’s reputation. She’s also re-awakened my interest in the period – tonight I’ll be watching the BBC version of the Shakespeare’s play (the final episode in the Hollow Crown series). Then tomorrow I plan to head for the library hoping they might have a history of Richard’s reign.

Footnotes

The Book: The Daughter of Time was published in 1951, the year before the death of its author. In 1990 it was voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list compiled by the British Crime Writers’ Association.

The Author: Jospehine Tey was one of the pen-names of Elizabeth MacKintosh, a teacher from Inverness, Scotland. She started publishing novels in 1929 under the name Gordon Daviot, using that pseudonym also for some historical plays. A Daughter of Time was her final novel.  She left her copyrights to the National Trust.

Why I read this: I tried reading another of Tey’s novels – Brat Farrar  – but found it rather dull so gave up. I found a copy of The Daughter of Time in a second hand shop at very low cost and since I’m a sucker for the Wars of the Roses period in history, my curiousity was awakened.  The 1951 Club, the latest in a series of events hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, gave me the impetus to take it out of the bookcase.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on April 12, 2017, in Book Reviews, Crime fiction, historical fiction, Scotland, TBR list and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. Well what I want to know is why it was called Daughter of Time??? I haven’t read it but I have certainly heard of it. Part of the fun of reading books from this year is seeing what we think is dated yes? Thanks for a great review. I have been unbelievably slow in reading and reviewing my books for this meme. http://luvviesmusings.blogspot.com.au/

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  2. I read this book when I was young so don’t remember much about the actual story and writing. What I remember is that I read it on the recommendation of friends, not really expecting to like it because it was not a genre that I read (historical mysteries) but I found that I loved it. I learnt a lesson from that, which was that while I still have my reading preferences, I should be open to the fact that there are good books across all styles and genres. I learnt, then, to never say “I never read XXX”.

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  3. Thanks for taking part in the 1951 Club! This is one of my housemate’s very favourite books, and she seems to re-read it all the time, so I should get around to it…

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    • As I recommended to another commenter if you decide to read this Simon, have a copy of the York/Lancaster dynastic tree to hand – the edition I read had this at the beginning so I copied it and used as a bookmark. It proved invaluable the deeper I got into the book and Tey introduces the question of who else could have been heirs to the throne

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  4. I really like these Josephine Tey novels and this is a great post about this one!

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  5. I really enjoyed your review,. It’s interesting I think I re-read it partly in the shoes of myself as the teen I was when I first read it, so the flaws you mention, which I would normally be fitting at, remained unspotted, as I re-read with joy! And now I too must explore the Hocking Ali refers to!

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  6. I own a copy of this and have been wanting to read it for ages! I definitely feel enthusiastic about doing so now. I know very little about Richard III and feel sure this would be an education as well as an entertainment!

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    • If you decide to read it I would recommend you have to hand a copy of the ‘family tree’ showing the lines of descent and thus who is who. There was one at the front of my book which proved invaluable ….

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  7. I’m always a bit baffled by the insistence of many Golden Age detectives that “the cut of a man’s jib” is a reliable indication of their murderousness (or lack thereof). As an investigative method, it seems so likely to do nothing but reinforce pre-existing opinions on the part of the detective! After all, plenty of charming and intelligent people have been killers…

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  8. I must admit that when I read this it completely convinced me that Richard 111 was much maligned! I did hope to re-read it this week but I don’t think I’ll get to it now, alas!

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  9. Fascinating premise. I have not heard of Henry VII being considered the culprit. A few months ago I read a brilliant novel by Mary Hocking called He Who Plays the king – about Henry VII Richard III and the young princes (the eldest was in fact king – though uncrowned) which I recommend to anyone interested in this fascinating story.

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  10. I love that this all started due to him “reading” Richard III painting. All the paintings at the time are known to embellish. That was one of the painters job after all (who wants to look ugly on a very, very expenisive picture of one self?) But this did peak my interest of the book. Do you have any idea how correct the information in the book is? The known information, not if Richard III was a good man or not.

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